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Just a Whisper on the FM Dial

KPFZ takes to the airwaves as if its broadcasts reached beyond a few miles.

April 09, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LUCERNE, Calif. — The transmitter is on a shelf in Andy Weiss' laundry room. The antenna is attached to the branch of an oak tree behind his house. His personal telephone line? It's the same one he uses to take calls for KPFZ-LP, the 100-watt radio station broadcasting from his home in Northern California.

It's just a few minutes after 6 p.m. Saturday, the one day each week the station is live, and DJs Lonnie "Elmo" Moultry, 51, and Tee Watts, 51, are on the air spinning vinyl. During their two-hour show, "In the Free Zone," they mix it up with everything from the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd to the Supremes and Temptations--not unusual music, just an unusual format, which is whatever they want to play. Their music show, one of several the station hosts, follows a string of public affairs programs: "The Environment Hour," "I'm Not a Lawyer, but I Play One on the Radio" and "Artwatch."

No one knows how many people are listening. Anyone who is, though, is within 15 miles of Weiss' house. KPFZ is a low-power FM radio station, or LPFM. It is one of only two stations to get up and running in California since the FCC approved this new class of license two years ago. The other is KEFC, operated by the Evangelical Free Church of Turlock, which airs Christian music and religious services.

The new licenses were created to bring localized radio programming to small communities and to diversify the content of what's broadcast. Last year, the FCC began issuing the first of about 240 construction permits for LPFMs to schools, churches, Indian reservations, community organizations and other noncommercial special-interest groups across the nation--21 of them in California.

Run by the nonprofit Lake County Community Radio group, KPFZ has been on the air since September. It's among a few to be operated out of a house. Nationally, only about a dozen LPFMs have managed to get on the air since the FCC made the licenses available. Duct-taped to the chain-link gate on Weiss' driveway is a ragged piece of cardboard with magic marker lettering that reads, "KPFZ 104.5." There's no gargantuan radio tower, no flashy sign to give the station away. Just a humble three-bedroom house on a hill overlooking Lucerne, the "Switzerland of America," according to its welcome sign. A lazy lake community supported by agriculture and tourism, Lucerne, population 2,000, is one of several small towns that ring Clear Lake, the state's largest natural inland body of water. On any given day, boats dot its surface, and motorcycles cruise its 100 miles of shoreline.

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On-Air Legal Advice

On Saturdays, beginning at 7 a.m., a steady stream of DJs travel the dirt road to Weiss' home. They will host talk shows on topics ranging from the environment to local politics and music programs featuring folk and jazz, and they are carting records, interview materials, food and friends.

Catherine and Steve Elias, a husband-and-wife team, are at the station to host a legal talk show called "Both Sides Now." It runs from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Neither Catherine, 62, nor Steve, 60, had been at the controls of a radio station before a friend told them about KPFZ, but, united in their belief that radio should be used as a tool to inform and educate, they got involved last summer. Catherine, a former paralegal trainer, is now KPFZ's president; her co-host husband is a retired attorney.

KPFZ's left leanings are evidenced in the DJ studio, a room Weiss once used as his office, where local maps and stickers supporting the Green Party and Ralph Nader give the small space a cozy, crunchy-granola feel. The DJ console is a hodgepodge of turntables, tape decks, CD players and other studio gear.

Weiss decided to get involved in the grass-roots business of creating an LPFM station because he believes that it is important to have local voices on the airwaves and that those airwaves be accessible to voices outside the "mono-culture" of mainstream media.

KPFZ broadcasts live only one day of the week to limit the disturbance to Weiss' personal life--his regular job is as a community college computer instructor.

"It's great most of the time, but sometimes it's not," said Weiss, 55, who re-broadcasts Saturday's shows and prerecorded programs from other sources during the rest of the week. "When you're in the mood to make radio, which is most of the time, it's terrific. But if you're not, then ... it's like having a party when you don't want one."

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Of Local Interest

Like many people who live in small communities far removed from major metropolitan areas, the people of Lucerne are too far away to be able to tune in to most of the radio stations broadcasting from the Bay Area (three hours south) or Sacramento (two hours southeast). Even so, only a portion of what is broadcast on those stations is directly relevant to their lives. Much of it is not.

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